Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Sanctification, Counseling, and the Gospel

by Bill Baldwin

Counselling must stimulate faith so that behavior flows from a redeemed heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. Often enough, people make this reply to that statement: "We're presupposing faith, and a regenerate heart and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Of course it is impossible for the counselee to benefit from counselling without these things." And we end up frustrated. They are frustrated because they think I'm accusing them of not doing everything at once. After all, there are good books already available on faith and the heart (the Puritans rambled on forever on that one) and the Holy Spirit. Now we need a book on counseling and if we repeat all the previous work we'll be duplicating the efforts of others and getting nowhere. And I'm frustrated because I don't believe my point has been understood.

Let me make that point briefly and then expound on it. It is possible to have a regenerate heart of faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and to produce actions that do not proceed therefrom. We do it every day. It is called sin. It is therefore essential that the counselor evoke the faith, stimulate the heart, and teach the counselee thereby to desire and receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Counselling cannot be about anything if it is not about faith and the heart and the Spirit of God.

Here is that same response in a longer form:

When I tell a man to change his behavior -- and he realizes he must -- it is the most natural thing in the world that he should do so by relying on his natural strength and the force of his will. It is therefore essential that the counselor solemnly warn him against such a course. He has heard the law and glibly said "I will do what it says." He must know of the holiness of that law and the condemnation declared against all who try to commend themselves to God by lawkeeping. The law must drive him to the gospel of Christ.

And that gospel must long be dwelt upon that it may evoke faith -- whether for the first time or as a stirring up and a repeated application of a faith already present. Only works that spring out of such a faith constitute the gospel obedience held out in Scripture.

The human mind, observed Calvin, is an idol factory. And our favorite idol stares back at us from the mirror each morning. When we are told to change our behavior, that idol is our first, most natural, and often unconscious recourse. The way of the gospel is strange, uncertain, and involved. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it.

If an act does not spring from a conscious exercise of faith stirred up by gospel truth, we can be almost certain the act does not spring unconsciously therefrom. And whatever is not of faith is sin. The majority of my life is spent in self-idolatry. Again and again I find myself feeling and acting as though I am my own, as though I have the power to do what I choose to, as though I live and move and have my being within myself rather than in God through Christ. I say, "Tomorrow, I will do such and such" without a hint of "Lord willing" in my mind. Unconsciously I have stopped relying on another for everything I do. I have left the way of faith and any other way is sin.

Am I so sinful then? Indeed, in my flesh -- utterly sinful. But I have been called to walk not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Not by works but by faith. Have I then made so little progress in walking in the Spirit that, every time I relax my vigilance I begin to walk in the flesh? Every time my renewed mind falls asleep it wakes to find me in sin? Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death? I praise God and cling to Christ for in Christ even now I have no condemnation, and in that sweet assurance I look forward to the resurrection of this body, gloriously transformed at last to Christlike perfection.

Meanwhile I wrestle with temptation; I fall into sin but am not overcome. He who died for me now restores me and sets me on the path of life -- Christ, the Way -- again.

What do I learn about counselling from these truths? Simply this: When a counselee comes to me with a problem of sin, he has been catering to his flesh and -- if he has tried to combat the sin at all -- has been combatting the sin in the strength of his flesh. Hence his failure and his need. If I counsel such a man by giving him "practical" steps to change his behavior, he will certainly attempt those steps in the strength of his own flesh. He has already demonstrated that this is the usual way he deals with this area of his life -- at least lately. Will he change now?

We cannot, we must not, "presuppose" the presence of faith and a regenerate heart and the Holy Spirit. What if you were a farmer contemplating a tree that bears little fruit, and much of it bad? Would you say, "I assume the roots are fine and I assume the soil's good and I assume it's getting enough water" and look for the problem elsewhere? The condition of the fruit tells you you must examine the roots and the soil. So here. A counselee bearing bad fruit in a certain area must be brought back to the root of Christ and the soil of the gospel and the rain of grace. We do not assume the presence of Christ, we drive the counselee to Christ by the law. We do not assume the presence of faith (for faith is either absent of weak); we stimulate faith by the gospel. We do not assume the presence of love for God and neighbor, we evoke that love by telling him of God's love for him -- not to guilt trip him into obedience but that his heart may burst with joy and a desire to be conformed to the image of Christ and to love with the love of Christ.

But what if the gospel doesn't work? We expound the gospel but it fails to motivate and empower the counselee to love and good deeds? The question seems despairing if not outright blasphemous. For when we speak of the gospel, we speak of the redeeming work of Christ in his incarnation, perfect life, atoning death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of power whence he sends forth the Holy Spirit to equip us for every good work. If that "doesn't work" we have no hope.

But the question is legitimate. What if the gospel does not reignite a spark of faith in the counselee so that he forsakes his sin, clings to Christ, stands in awe of his salvation, and goes forth to love and serve the Lord? What if the gospel doesn't work? Then take him to the law.

Let me be completely clear. I do not say "take him to the law" so that the law may motivate him to do what is right. The law cannot. It was not created for that purpose and cannot be used for that purpose without producing pharisees and Judaizers. We must not cause the counselee to say, "The gospel wholly failed to motivate me to good works; but now that I see that God commands good works, I know that I must do them. And if I have no desire for good works, I will do them out of sheer, teeth-gritting obedience because God requires it of me." Such obedience is wholly unacceptable to God. We must actively discourage the counselee from such thinking.

The counselor errs grossly if he uses the commands of God to motivate his counselee to an obedience born of the sheer force of his will.

A second error is like it but more subtle. The counselor may reason that the proper purpose of the law is to drive a man to Christ, but he turns Christ into a gimmick, a means by which the counselee may be enabled better to keep the law. The counselor has not fully understood the law and its demands and so the counselee misunderstands as well. The counselee hears the law and says "Yes, I want to do those things and I am sorry I haven't been. Who will enable me to do them properly?" Such a man does not yet understand his own depravity. He desires merely to be enabled to keep the law rather than begging that the law might be kept and forgiveness obtained on his behalf. He asks "Where will I find the strength to keep the law?" rather than "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of death!" This man must be pried from the false Christ to which he clings and held closer to the fires of the law until he cries out, "I cannot keep it! Someone else must do it for me!"

This is as true in sanctification as in justification. We are justified by grace through faith in Christ. So are we sanctified. The law that first drove us to Christ again and again drives us back to him for repeated applications of his forgiveness and his righteousness.

The law must never drive us to desire to keep the law but that we should be freed from its shackles of condemnation. When we have been driven to Christ, when we have drunk deep of his salvation, our freedom from the law's loud thunder, the glories that are laid up for us in heaven and in which we even now participate by faith. . . then we shall walk forth in newness of life. If we abide in Christ we will bear much fruit. We labor with counselees long and hard that they should walk by the Spirit. For we know that when they walk by the Spirit they will not carry out the desires of the flesh.

The law, stripped of its condemnation, will then describe the content of our behavior. And when we have questions in that regard as we walk by the Spirit, we may consult God's standards to make sure that the new obedience we are gratefully bringing forth is not of our own devising.

But this is not the hardest or the most necessary part of counseling. Driving them to Christ by the law and teaching them to cling to Christ by faith must occupy most of our time. The nitty gritty "practical" concerns will largely take care of themselves if only we stick to this method.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying the law isn't useful as a pattern of the good works that flow from sanctification. It is. But that is not the use that Paul or the rest of Scripture harps on over and over. Give me a man who preaches the law with its terror and Christ with his sweetness and forgets to preach the law as a pattern of the fruit of sanctification and what will result? In two months his parishioners will be breaking down his door begging to be told what behavior their renewed, bursting with joy, hearts may best produce. And when he tells them, they will be surprised (and he will not) to discover that by and large they have produced exactly that. And where they haven't, take them back to Christ again that they may contemplate him in all his glorious perfection so that they may better understand what sort of God and man he was and is.

What if a man preaches the law as a pattern of the fruit of sanctification and reduces Christ as a means to producing that pattern? What will result? Nothing or worse than nothing.

Hold fast the head and the body will move. Abide in Christ and the fruit will come.

This paper was written 8-2-96 - Bill Baldwin is a ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) with a commitment to the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a desire to nourish by that Gospel, strengthened to good works. He studied under Meredith G. Kline, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.

[ Top | Eschatology | Bible Studies | Classics | Articles | Other Articles | Sermons | Apologetics | F.A.Q. | Forum ]